CoV-2

COVID More Deadly Than Flu For Kids

In the US, nearly six times more kids and teens died from COVID in one year than did from the flu, according to a new analysis of pediatric mortality data. According to CDC data, childhood flu deaths have ranged from 39 to 199 per year since 2004. Meanwhile, in 2021 alone, more than 600 children died from Covid-19, according to an analysis done by researchers at the Harvard University Medical School and at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.  The analysis used data from the CDC to compare COVID deaths during the pandemic to flu deaths over the last decade (see figure below).

Of the known respiratory viruses, only CoV-2 has ever killed more than 100 US kids in a single month since the middle of the 20th century. Much of that is because we have long had vaccines for other viruses that cause human respiratory disease, but have yet to widely vaccinate children against COVID-19. Hopefully, new vaccines will also render COVID less deadly for kids like vaccines have done for several other respiratory diseases.

Throughout the pandemic, some have argued that COVID poses little health risk to kids aside from a few days of sniffles. Though kids often experience less-severe symptoms than adults, COVID is still a very real risk. An estimated half a million kids now deal with long COVID, a number that experts say is likely an undercount because its myriad symptoms make it tricky to diagnose.

Mortality in kids


Masks Redux

"You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there."

—Yogi Berra

As cases of COVID-19 ascend in areas of the US, some schools are reverting to requiring masks. Of course this is accompanied by renewed claims that they are ineffective. In fact, Florida governor Ron DeSantis issued an executive order barring local school districts from requiring their students to wear masks, claiming that there was no evidence that masks prevent infection in schools. That claim has been levied over and over by many politicians, talking heads, pundits, and assorted Facebook “experts.” But, they are flat wrong. There are multiple lines of evidence from a variety of disciplines—including materials science, infectious diseases, pediatrics and epidemiology—showing that masks can help protect children and teachers from getting COVID in schools. Some of that evidence has already been presented in these pages, and I now add to that body of evidence, more  data recently summarized in Scientific American.

  1. For starters, laboratory experiments show that masks block the respiratory droplets and aerosols that transmit SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID. In one test, an engineering team at the University of Wisconsin–Madison used a machine in a classroom setting to pump out particles the same size as those that carry the virus from an infected person. The researchers placed several CPR dummies with or without masks around the room and measured the degree to which the aerosols penetrated the masks. They reported that a surgical mask reduced the chances of penetration by 382 times when compared to the maskless mannequins.
  2. Then, in the real world, not a laboratory setting, several epidemiological studies also concluded that masks in schools work. Researchers at the ABC Science Collaborative in North Carolina collected data from more than a million K–12 students and staff members from schools across that state, which mandated masking in schools from August 2020 until July 2021. The scientists reported little in-school transmission when the mask mandates were in place during the fall, winter or summer months. During this time, in-school transmission remained low as COVID cases fluctuated outside the schools. With mask mandates, rates of within-school spread were as low as one percent.
  3. Masks, combined with other prevention efforts, also reduce the risk that students might bring home the virus to parents or other relatives. An online survey of 2.1 million Americans by researchers at Johns Hopkins University showed a 38 percent increased risk of COVID-related illness in households with a child attending school in person. That risk went down, however, as the number of school-based mitigation measures, including mask mandates went up.
  4. Studies done in wider communities beyond schools give the strongest real-world evidence that masks stop COVID’s spread. An international team of researchers conducted a randomized controlled trial involving nearly 350,000 people across 600 villages in rural Bangladesh. Half of the villages got free cloth or surgical masks and a promotional campaign encouraging their use. The other half did not. The researchers found that the mask intervention significantly curbed coronavirus transmission.

Bottom line:  The effectiveness of masks in schools is supported by many different studies and analyses that show similar results. There are more than a dozen studies beyond those cited here, that all point to the same conclusion:

Masks work.

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What Happened To The Flu And Other Respiratory Diseases?

A NYC based travel blogger who travels a lot used to get a respiratory infection whenever she flew. That stopped when the airline mask mandates went into effect. The mandates, of course, were designed to hinder the spread of the CoV-2 virus that causes COVID, but it makes sense that if masks and other physical (that is, non-medical) mandates worked to mitigate COVID, then we would see a decrease in other contagious respiratory diseases after the mandates were, well…mandated.

We did.

The mandates worked, despite persistent claims of some to the contrary. This particular blog subject was stimulated by a radio talk show where a couple of nonscientist talking heads announced that there was no scientific proof that the masks or other mandates prevented disease. I previously posted in these pages evidence that masks, in particular, do indeed work to retard the spread of disease (see here, here, here, and here). In this post, I present further data on how the mandates significantly reduced the incidence of other infectious respiratory diseases around the world. If the measures can reduce flu, then you can bet that they also reduced COVID-19.

Note, however, that this is not necessarily an endorsement for returning to the measures. Your humble scribe didn’t much like his glasses fogging up, or having to make two trips from the car to the store because he forgot his mask. But, let’s argue the issue based on its merits and not from false premises based on incorrect claims.

After South Korea implemented various hygiene and social distancing measures in response to COVID, they saw the 2019-20 flu season end an astounding 12 weeks earlier than the previous year. Epidemiological surveillance data bolstered by clinical diagnostic testing showed that infection from several different pathogenic respiratory viruses (including adenovirus, bocavirus, metapneumovirus, rhinovirus, flu, parainfluenza, and respiratory syncytial virus) dropped to nearly 0% just five weeks into 2020!

In the United States, the incidence of infection by influenza, respiratory adenovirus, rhinovirus, enterovirus, RSV, non-COVID coronaviruses, metapneumovirus, and parainfluenza viruses all decreased in March 2020, soon after implementation of mandates. Similar results were seen in Japan.

More dramatically, since pandemic mitigation measures were put in place, there has been a 99% global reduction of infections from both influenza types A and B compared to prior years. In particular, one of two flu B substrains has not been isolated in the world since August 2021 suggesting that this variant is now extinct. The overall genetic diversity of influenza viruses has also dramatically diminished indicating that other flu sub-types (or clades) have disappeared around the world since the pandemic mandates were put in place.

And this reduction of respiratory infectious disease does not only hold for those caused by viruses. Another study looked at surveillance data from 26 countries across 6 continents for several bacterial diseases caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, and Neisseria meningitidis, which are typically transmitted via respiratory droplets. Numbers of weekly cases in 2020 were compared with corresponding data for 2018 and 2019. Data for disease due to Streptococcus agalactiae, a non-respiratory pathogen, were also collected from nine laboratories for comparison. All countries experienced a significant and sustained reduction in respiratory bacterial diseases in early 2020 (Jan 1 to May 31), coinciding with the introduction of non-medical COVID containment measures in each country. By contrast, the incidence of disease due to S agalactiae (which is not transmitted by the respiratory route) did not differ significantly from the 2 previous years.

Clearly, the mandates significantly reduced the incidence of respiratory infections by non-COVID viruses and bacteria. They worked. So, why did we still have COVID infections after the mandates went into place? The mandates reduced, not eliminated these diseases, so infections still happened. Since we did not have historical COVID infection data from previous years to compare with, the effects of the current mandates on the incidence of COVID are not as clear cut as they are with other diseases for which we do have historical data for comparison. But, as I wrote before (see above), it is clear that places in the US and around the world that used masks and other protective measures saw reduced incidence of COVID compared to similar places that did not.

Bottom line: The studies mentioned here regarding non-COVID infectious diseases fully support data previously posted in these pages that the mandates, including masks, are effective non-medical tools for controlling infectious respiratory diseases.

Don’t let anyone tell you differently.


A Single Gene Doubles Risk Of COVID Death

“Nothing shocks me. I’m a scientist.” —Indiana Jones

British scientists recently identified an allele, or a version of a gene, that portends lung failure and death in COVID-19 patients. Research recently published in the journal Nature Genetics, found that a poorly studied gene expressed in lungs, designated LZTFL1, has a variant form that does not differ in its coding sequence. That is, the different alleles of the gene express the same protein sequence. They do differ, however, in their non-coding sequences that regulate expression of the gene. When expressed, the gene product prevents cells lining airways and the lungs from responding properly to the CoV-2 virus. The lining of the lung essentially transforms into less specialized cells which affects their normal function.

Previous work had identified a stretch of DNA on human chromosome 3 that doubled the risk of death from COVID. Using an artificial intelligence algorithm to analyze millions of genetic sequences from hundreds of cell types from all parts of the body, the Oxford University Howard Hughes research team honed in on the lung-specific genetic off-on switch. This is another example of what I previously labeled "BioX," the new frontier of bioscience, or post-molecular biology science.

Importantly, the variant allele that augurs a worse lung response to infection does not affect the immune system. Therefore, the it is probable that vaccination remains the best way to protect these at-risk patients. Finding this new allele could also lead to novel therapies to target the pathway affected by this genetic variant to provide targeted treatment for at-risk populations.

The troublesome variant is mostly found in people of South Asian ancestry—some 60% of whom carry the allele—which partly explains the severe devastation from COVID seen in the Indian subcontinent. In contrast, 15% of those with European ancestry and 2% of Afro-Caribbean people carry the risky allele.

It will be interesting to see if this lung-specific gene also affects the course of other respiratory infectious diseases.

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COVID-Diabetes Link Confirmed

As I penned in these virtual pages almost a year ago, COVID survivors have a high risk for developing diabetes. Early on, diabetes was identified as a risk factor for severe COVID illness, but two years later, scientists were surprised by the unforseen reverse correlation between COVID and the metabolic condition. The increased risk for diabetes in COVID survivors was recently confirmed by US and German scientists.

A study of more than 180,000 American veterans done at the St. Louis VA Health Care System found that COVID survivors were 40% more likely to get a new diagnosis of diabetes within a year of their COVID diagnosis than a control group of veterans who avoided the virus. That works out to about 13.5 extra cases of diabetes per 1,000 COVID patients.

The increased risk for diabetes was evident even in people who had a low risk of diabetes before COVID, and the likelihood of newly diagnosed diabetes increased with the level of care patients received for COVID. In other words, the sicker the patients were with COVID, the more likely they were to develop diabetes.

The other study from Germany found that people who had mild COVID cases were 28% more likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes compared to a control group consisting of patients who had an upper respiratory tract infection caused by a different bug. That study was based on an analysis of electronic records from a nationwide primary care database that followed patients, including almost 36,000 COVID cases, for 3-5 months. This means that these newly diagnosed cases of diabetes arose quickly after COVID infection, and were not a result of general respiratory infection, but were a specific consequence of CoV-2 infection.

Questions remain about whether diabetes that follows COVID is just temporary and reversible after patients fully recover, or whether it leads to chronic disease. In other words, if you had even mild COVID, you should ask your doctor to screen you for diabetes, which simply entails a fasting blood draw to test for glucose and hemoglobin A1c levels, which are elevated in diabetic patients.

A lingering question is how COVID leads to diabetes. Does the virus directly affect the insulin-secreting beta cells in the islets of the pancreas, or is new-onset diabetes caused by metabolic changes in fat cells which we know are readily infected by the virus. It is also possible that insulin production is perturbed by viral damage to the cells that line vessels supplying blood to the pancreas, indirectly causing death of insulin producing cells. A more trivial cause for post-COVID diabetes could simply be an unveiling of incipient diabetes that might have gone undiagnosed because people have been away from the health-care system during the pandemic. It is also possible that steroid medications prescribed to tame the COVID inflammatory response could elevate glucose levels in the blood, leading to a diabetes diagnosis.

Research into the cause of the COVID-diabetes link continues apace—stay tuned.

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Why Don’t The COVID Vaccines Last Longer?

The FDA just authorized a second booster shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna coronavirus vaccines for people over 50 and the CDC has approved it. A second booster has already been approved in the U.K., Sweden, Israel and Denmark.

Why do we need a second booster only months after the first booster, which came only months after most of us received two jabs of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna mRNA vaccines? Are the vaccines not very good? After all, we get small pox or measles shots that last a lifetime. Others, like the vax for tetanus, last for ~10 years. Why can’t we get a more durable coronavirus vaccine?

The answer is complicated and largely rooted in both viral biology and vaccine immunology.

Viral biology. The simplest answer is that viral mutation can change the molecules the vaccine immune response is trained to recognize, causing vax immunity to decay as viruses mutate. The coronavirus vaccines are directed against the spike protein expressed on the original CoV-2 that first appeared in Wuhan, but that ancestral bug has spawned mutated progeny that look a bit different to the immune system. In other words, viral variants created by “antigenic drift” become less recognizable to the immune system. That is why the vaccines are somewhat less effective against the Omicron variant that carries numerous point mutations in its spike protein. The current vaccines are still pretty effective against current viral variants, but continued antigenic drift along with the selection of variants that can better avoid vaccine immunity will likely require new vaccines in the future.

So, why do we need new flu vaccines every year, and need frequent CoV-2 vaccines, but we don’t similarly need new measles vaccines? Measles, mumps, flu, COVID, and other diseases are caused by viruses, but the different viruses behave quite differently. Viruses carry relatively little genetic material that tends to mutate as they replicate and spread. Some viruses, like flu, also have a “segmented genome” meaning that their genetic material is carried on several separate genetic molecules, making it easy to shuffle their genomes like a deck of cards when different flu strains infect the same animal. Other pathogens carry all their genetic material on a single DNA or RNA molecule making such gene shuffling between strains less likely, but it still happens. Also, the mutation rate of a pathogen’s genome is a function of its replication rate; hence, each time a bug copies its genome, small random errors are inserted into its genetic code. The more the bug replicates, the more mutations will accumulate in its genome and the faster replicating bugs will more rapidly create new variants. Thus, the measles virus is pretty stable since it does not replicate as much as a coronavirus or a flu virus, so it is not surprising that vaccine immunity to measles is much more durable. Smallpox and polioviruses also have relatively low replication rates and vaccine immunity to them also is long-lasting. In contrast, flu and coronaviruses replicate rapidly and pass back and forth between humans and animals. This means that they mutate rapidly and need frequent vaccine updates.

Other vaccines, such as the TB vax, target bacteria not viruses. Bacteria carry larger genomes that are not so changeable, so anti-bacteria vaccines also are pretty long-lasting compared to many anti-viral vaccines.

Yet other vaccines, such as those against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis do not even target the pathogen at all, but target toxins produced by the bugs. Vaccinated people produce antibodies that neutralize the toxins and this prevents disease. These vaccines do not forestall infection, they simply prevent the ill effects of the pathogen. Therefore, for these toxoid vaccines, there is no immunological selective pressure to select pathogen variants that can avoid vax immunity. Vaccines against these toxins also tend to be among the longest-lived vaccines.

Vaccine immunology. Vaccines aim to mimic natural immunity we develop to infection with pathogens. By exposing the body to harmless imitations of a pathogen, vaccines create an immune response and immune memory against pathogens, while avoiding the disease caused by the bugs. When an infection does occur in a vaccinated person, a rapid and robust immune response is mounted, first with B-cell generated antibodies that latch onto the invaders and prevent them from spreading and causing illness. Then T-cells secret cytokines that further ramp up the inflammatory response, and other T cells attack pathogen-infected cells. As explained earlier in these pages, antibody responses tend to linger only a few weeks to a few months and then gradually decay. This is good; otherwise your blood serum would be like syrup from all the antibodies against all foreign things you encountered over your lifetime. While antibodies circulating in your blood are good for quickly attacking infections shortly after infection, they do not confer long-term immunity. What confers long-term protection is what are called memory cells. These are a relatively few T and B cells that go dormant after fighting an initial infection or responding to a vaccine, but hang around awaiting a new infection to signal them to quickly roar back to life and mount a vigorous response against their cognate pathogen. This secondary response to a previously seen pathogen is much faster and usually nips the bug in the bud so you don’t even know you were infected.

When we hear that CoV-2 immunity decays only a few months after vaccination, the reports usually refer to declining levels of anti-CoV-2 antibodies, which happens naturally. Such announcements do not take into account your immune memory, which is harder to measure, but which is a better metric of your long term immunity. The problem also is that we simply have not had enough time with the vaccines to know how long their immune memory persists. It seems relevant that a study published in July 2020 reported that people who were infected with SARS in 2003 maintained robust T cell immunity 17 years later. So far, indications are that even though antibody levels fall over time, immunological memory after vaccination also remains robust. This is seen by the continued protection from serious disease and death in vaccinated people with low antibody levels. The vaccines and the immune memory they stimulate are working. How long that memory persists is unknown. Time will tell.

So why are we getting the booster shots? In the face of a raging pandemic caused by a novel pathogen, the cautious approach is to keep antibody levels at a protective level in vaccinated people until we better understand the extent of long-term protection brought on by our immune memory. The boosters, therefore, represent a cautious approach to maintain an effective antibody defense during these still early months of a novel pandemic. We likely will reach a time where world-wide immunity from vaccination and natural infection will give us baseline protection that will render COVID-19 mostly a bothersome disease rather than a life threatening infection. Until then, the boosters are a good idea to help us maintain an effective antibody defense against serious disease.

The natural pathology of measles is instructive here. Even though antibody levels typically decline after most immunizations, antibodies produced after a measles vaccine persist for many years. This happens with some other, but not all, vaccines too, but why? In countries where the measles virus is endemic, repeated infection of vaccinated people keeps the antibody immune response in continual high gear. That is not the case with the flu virus which changes rapidly and bypasses last years shot. Interestingly, measles has been eradicated from the US and Western Europe, so vaccinated people are not continually exposed and re-exposed to the virus and, unlike for those who live in endemic areas, our anti-measles antibody levels decline. Therefore, our long-term protection against the virus is due to our immune memory and not due to antibody levels.

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Updated: Over 65? Roll Up Your Sleeve Again

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The Washington Post just reported that Pfizer and its partner-in-vax, BioNTech, plan to seek emergency authorization for a second CoV-2 booster for those of us 65 and older (you know who you are). It is intended to beef up immunity that wanes a bit a few months following the previous booster.

US data show protection against severe COVID illness is robust after the first booster, but falls somewhat from 91 percent effective in preventing severe illness to 78 percent effective over several months. Still, 78% protection is very good, but given how transmissible Omicron is, and the possible emergence of the Son-of-Omicron, which might be even more infectious and virulent, the idea behind a second booster is to offer people the chance to acquire the greatest level of protection possible. Not a bad idea.

The data that will be submitted to the FDA in support of the 2nd booster probably will include real-world data collected in Israel, which has already rolled out the second shot, and has reduced infections and serious illness in people older than 60. This will likely not be the last CoV-2 vax we will see. Pfizer and BioNTech are also working on a vaccine more effective against all variants and provide more lasting protection. That remains on the horizon, so stay tuned.

For those of us 65 and older, we (at least the males in that demographic) remember draft cards. As we entered our later years, the draft card, if unburned, was replaced in our wallets with our AARP cards, and then accompanied with our Medicare cards. Now we need a new wallet pocket to accommodate our vax card.

On a personal note about cards, your maturing and slowing bloggeur admits favoring a certain grocery store in town because they still card him when he buys his bottles of 80 proof anti-vax remedies.

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Update: Three days after this was first posted, Moderna announced that it also has asked for FDA approval for a second booster. However, they ask that the booster be approved for all adults over 18, and not just for those over 65 as Pfizer/BioNTech have done. This request, like the one submitted by Pfizer/BioNTech is largely based on recent data from Israel

Moderna made a strategic decision to request approval for all adults in order to give the FDA flexibility in deciding which patients would be good candidates for the booster. In other words, they could decide that it also would benefit under 65 and so recommend.

 

 


“Mater Artium Necessitas”

So said William Horman, 16th century Headmaster of the Eton school. Translated, he posited, “The mother of invention is necessity.”

And necessity these days means environmental screening for SARS-CoV-2. Room air samplers have been developed and used to detect airborne virus RNA in large settings, such as hospitals and other large buildings people frequent. In fact active environmental air samplers have been used outdoors to detect airborne DNA and RNA as a way to survey animal populations in the wild. These are fairly large, immobile, active air samplers that require electricity to power them and crews to maintain them. While useful, environmental samplers are limited by their power requirements, lack of mobility, cost, and maintenance needs.

So, the mother of invention led to a portable, passive, personal air sampler that can be worn on one’s collar tool as described in a recent paper. It was reported to be quite effective for detecting ambient exposure to aerosol and droplet CoV-2 in the air.

The device uses a polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS)-based passive air sampler, which previously has been used to capture hydrophobic chemical contaminants and other nonpolar compounds, such as lipid-enveloped viruses that stick to the polymeric surface. After laboratory testing under controlled conditions that determined the unit could detect sub-infectious levels of virus exposure, samplers were passed out to select community members across Connecticut to surveil personal CoV-2 exposure. The study reported that 21% of wearers working in indoor restaurant settings, and 9% working in homeless shelters were exposed to 4-112 copies of CoV-2 per cubic meter of air. No exposure was reported for healthcare workers or “community members” who did not work in putative high-risk environments. The authors surmised that the lack of exposure by healthcare workers was due to the strict sterilization and hygiene procedures used in clinics and hospitals.

While the monitors did a good job sampling ambient air in real time, the need to later analyze the sample by RT-PCR for the presence of viral particles means that the results are not obtained in real time. This is a bit of a drawback to the current personal samplers.

Bottom line. These PDMS-based passive samplers may serve as a useful exposure assessment tool for airborne viral exposure in real-world high-risk settings and allow early detection of potential cases and guidance on infection control. More broadly, this also could be used to monitor the presence of other biological scourges in public places and serve as early warning devices for biological warfare threats.

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention.

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Still More Evidence For An Animal Origin Of The Virus

Conspiracy buffs won’t like this, but compelling new evidence presented in three papers, which include photographic and DNA data, has pretty much nailed down the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It began in a wet market animal not in the lab eight miles away as the conspiracists have conjectured. This new data comes from an international team of scientists which concluded that the coronavirus twice jumped from  caged wild animals into people at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. These data correlate nicely with previous geo-epidemiological data showing the market, not the lab, to be the infection nidus with later infections radiating out from there.

Despite the Chinese’s government denial that live animals were sold in the Wuhan market, the new studies provide photographic evidence of wild animals sitting in stacked cages in the market in late 2019, in or near stalls where scientists found SARS-CoV-2 virus on a number of surfaces, including on cages, carts and machines that process animals after they are slaughtered at the market. This, along with a new genetic analysis pinpoints a specific stall at the market where the virus passed from an animal into people. These data also estimate the time when not just one but two zoonotic spillovers occurred, once in late November or early December and then again few weeks later. This coincides almost exactly with the timing of the outbreak of disease at and around the market.

The two initial infection events involved slightly different versions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The fact that they were related is evidence that the virus had spread and mutated in animals in the market before it infected humans.

A leader of two of the studies was U of Arizona professor, Michael Worobey, a viral pandemic sleuth who has been at the forefront of the search for the origins of the bug responsible for the current pandemic. His lead in the research is significant since, back in May, 2021, Worobey, along with 17 other scientists, called for investigation into the lab-leak theory. His latest research overturned that conjecture. This new evidence adds to previous evidence for an animal/market origin of the virus presented earlier in these pages here and here.

Final thought. It is sobering to think how these two simple infection events that occurred in November and December of 2019 in a Chinese market triggered something that has now caused six million deaths and untold misery around the world. And it is not finished with us.

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Another Unexpected Pandemic Consequence: Undiagnosed Cancer

In these pages, your humble bloggeur (that would be me) has written about several unusual consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of these were on the ironically funny side, such as farmed fish being too large for restaurant plates, rattlesnakes climbing in plane landing gears, and the ketchup packet shortage. But, not all of these odd aftermaths of the pandemic are humorous. The topic of this post is very unfunny.

Lungs

It seems that as healthcare providers were swamped with COVID cases, or were at reduced capacity because staff became ill, or because service slowed in order to prevent CoV-2 spread, many people have missed routine medical care for non-COVID problems. It is feared that this will create a crisis in coming years involving increased diagnosis of cancers that were caught later than usual. As we deal with the fourth wave of COVID-19 caused by the Omicron variant, we are learning that the pandemic dramatically disrupted routine health screenings for cancer and other chronic diseases. Some now predict that the next crisis that could overwhelm the US health system will be a surge in advanced chronic diseases like cancer that went undiagnosed and untreated for too long.

Screenings for several major cancers and new cancer diagnoses fell significantly during 2020, according to a study published in December 2021 in the journal Cancer. This was not because there was less cancer in the world. It was because fewer patients were seeing their doctors.

A co-author of the Cancer study, and who is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said that we have never before seen screening rates drop so dramatically in such a short time.

In one case, a Hispanic man in his 40s first noticed rectal bleeding in early 2020 that his doctor said was probably due to hemorrhoids. The man was unable to get a timely colonoscopy to rule out cancer because the local hospitals were overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, and he also feared catching COVID if he went to a hospital swamped with COVID patients. Eighteen months later, he finally got a colonoscopy, which revealed advanced rectal cancer. Those 18 months likely were the difference between being cured by a simple polyp removal vs dealing with a cancer that had metastasized throughout his body.

At this point, nobody knows how many cases like this are out there. We will find out.  

This patient, as thousands of others like him, had the misfortune to notice symptoms that needed followup amid the biggest disruption of medical care in US history. In 2020, while hospitals curtailed services in order to prepare for the COVID surge, the number of colonoscopies plummeted 93 percent. By the end of the year, there had been 133,231 fewer colonoscopies performed compared to 2019. There also were 62,793 fewer chest CT scans, 49,334 fewer fecal blood tests, and prostate biopsies dropped 25%.

This drop in screenings has created a huge backlog that will take months to clear. A gastroenterologist at a small community hospital in the Middle-of-No-Where, Kansas was recruited by a larger hospital in Kansas City to do nothing but colonoscopies from 7 in the morning to “whenever at night.” They had a backlog of 1000 patients—a certain percentage of whom have cancer already growing in their colons while waiting to be told they had colon cancer. And that backlog begets a fresh one of new patients who also need to be scoped because they just noticed something like rectal bleeding, but will have to wait for those who have already been waiting.

This backlog creates a subtle form of medical rationing. It forces doctors to make hard choices about which patients to prioritize. "Lucky" are the serious patients who are moved to the head of the line. Not so lucky are those whose colonoscopies or mammograms or biopsies are then further delayed.

I would rather deal with rattlesnakes in my plane's landing gear or forgo mustard on my brat (which would be pushing the limit) than delay a needed medical test or procedure. It seems that your humble bloggeur (me again) has been caught in the backlog. I am scheduled to have an enlarged parathyroid gland removed next week, but COVID can still derail that. I won’t be certain that the surgery will happen until the day before I am to be operated on and that depends, in part, on everyone, including me, being COVID-free, and the OR not being diverted for use as a COVID ICU. If it proceeds as scheduled, I will have waited several months since the initial diagnosis for the surgery. An additional routine diagnostic test I need in order to determine how the fractious organ might have affected my bone health was scheduled six months out. Six months for a routine scan?